Authors: Len Deighton
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Espionage, #Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery, #Spies, #Suspense, #Thriller, #World War II
‘You going to find this Bernie Lustig character?’ said Billy.
‘Is that the name of the movie producer?’
you, dad. On Melrose.’
‘I guess so.’
‘You don’t think this Lustig cat had anything to do with the killing, do you?’
‘I’m going to bed now, Billy.’ Again he looked for the ashtray. It was always on the table next to the flower vase.
‘If he owed MacIver twenty-five thousand dollars …’
‘We’ll talk about it in the morning, Billy. Where’s my ashtray?’
‘I’ll catch the TV news,’ said Billy. ‘Think they’ll still be running the clip?’
‘This is a rough town, Billy. One killing don’t make news for long.’ He reached across the table and stubbed his cigar into the remains of Billy’s beans.
The man behind the desk could have been mistaken for an oriental, especially when he smiled politely. His face was pale and even the sunshine of southern California made his skin go no darker than antique ivory. His hair was jet black and brushed tight against his domed skull. ‘Max Breslow,’ he said, offering a hand which Charles Stein shook energetically.
‘I was expecting to meet Mr Bernie Lustig,’ said Stein. He had selected one of his most expensive cream-coloured linen suits but already it was rumpled, and the knot of his white silk tie had twisted under his collar. He lowered his massive body into the black leather Charles Eames armchair, which creaked under his weight.
‘Mr Lustig is in Europe,’ said Max Breslow. ‘There is work to do there for our next production.’
‘The final secret of the Kaiseroda mine?’ said Stein, waving his large hand in the air and displaying a heavy gold Rolex watch and diamond rings on hands that were regularly manicured. When Breslow did not react to this question, Stein said, ‘Mr Miles MacIver is an old friend of mine. He promised to get my son a job with your film.’ Breslow nodded. Stein corrected himself. ‘MacIver
a close friend of mine.’
‘You were in the army with him?’ He had a faint German accent.
‘I didn’t say that,’ said Stein. He stroked his sideburns. They were long and bushy, curling over his ears.
Breslow picked up a stainless-steel letter-opener, toyed with it for a moment and looked at Stein. ‘It was a sad business with Mr MacIver,’ said Breslow. He said it with the same sort of clinical indifference with which an airline clerk comforts a passenger who has lost his baggage.
Stein remembered MacIver with a sudden disconcerting pang of grief. He recalled the night in 1945 when MacIver had crawled into the wreckage of a German Weinstube. They were in some small town on the other side of Mainz. The artillery had long since pounded it flat, the tanks had bypassed its difficult obstacles, the infantry had forgotten it existed, the engineers had threaded their tapes all through the streets, and left ‘
DANGER BOOBY TRAPS
’ signs in the rubble. Stein remembered how MacIver had climbed down from their two-and-a-half-ton winch truck saying that goddamned engineers always put those signs on the booze joints so they could come back and plunder it in their own sweet time. Stein had held his breath while MacIver climbed over the rubble and across the wrecked front parlour of the wine bar. For a moment he had been out of sight but soon he reappeared, flush-faced and grinning in triumph, fingers cut on broken glass and sleeve dark and wet with spilled red wine that shone like fresh blood. He was struggling under the weight of a whole case of German champagne.
MacIver had eased a cork and it had hit the roof of the cab with a noise like a gunshot. They poured it into mess tins and drank the fiercely bubbling golden champagne without talking. When they had finished it, MacIver tossed the empty bottle out into the dark night. ‘It’s a long time between drinks, pal.’
‘For an officer, and a flatfoot, you’re a scorer,’ said Stein.
It was a hell of a thing for an officer to do. A long time between drinks; he could never hear that said without thinking of MacIver.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Breslow politely. His head was cocked as if listening to some faint sound. Stein realized that he’d spoken out loud.
‘It’s a long time between drinks,’ said Stein. ‘It’s an American saying. Or at least it used to be when I was young.’
‘I see,’ said Breslow, noting this interesting fact. ‘Would you
‘OK,’ said Stein. ‘Rum and Coke if you’ve got it.’
Breslow rolled his swivel chair back towards the wall so that he could open the small refrigerator concealed in his walnut desk.
‘It’s darned hot in here,’ said Stein. ‘Is the air-conditioner working?’ His weight made him suffer in the humidity and now his hand-stitched suit showed small dark patches of sweat.
Breslow set up paper napkins and glasses on his desk top and put ice into one of them before adding the rum and Coke. He did it fastidiously, using metal tongs, one cube at a time. For himself he poured a small measure of cognac, without ice.
Stein had been nursing a floppy straw hat. As he eased himself slowly from the low armchair to get his drink from the desk, he tossed his hat on to a side table where film trade magazines had been arranged in fan patterns.
He didn’t get his drink immediately; going to the window he looked out. Melrose came close to the freeway here in one of the older districts of the city. This office was an apartment in a two-storey block repainted bright pink. Across the street brick apartment buildings and dilapidated little offices were defaced with obscene Spanish graffiti and speared with drunken TV antennae, and the whole thing was birdcaged with overhead wires. The freeway traffic was moving very slowly so that the Hollywood hills beyond wobbled in a grey veil of diesel fumes. Stein pulled his sunglasses from his face and pushed them into the top pocket of his jacket. He blinked in the bright light and dabbed his face with a silk handkerchief. ‘Damned hot.’ The sun was blood red and its light came through the slats of the venetian blind to make a pattern across Stein’s wrinkled face. It was always like this the day after a bad storm.
‘I’ve spoken to the janitor,’ explained Breslow. ‘The repairmen are working on the air-conditioning. Yesterday’s heavy rain got into the mechanism.’
‘MacIver owed me money,’ said Stein, ‘a lot of money. He gave me a part of his interest in your movie as surety.’
‘I hope you took the precaution of having him put that in writing,’ said Breslow.
‘Right,’ said Stein. He did not enlarge upon it; it was best to keep such untruths as brief as possible.
‘We are not even in the pre-production stage at present,’ said Breslow. He put the cognac to his mouth but it did no more than moisten his lips. ‘It is possible still that we will decide not to make the film. Unless we make it, there will be no money.’
‘All MacIver’s war experiences, was it?’
‘Together with some anecdotes he gathered from his comrades, some guesses about what went on in high places, and some creative writing concerning MacIver’s intrepid contribution to the Allied victory.’
Stein took his drink from the desk and tasted it before adding another measure of Coke. Then he looked at Breslow who was still enjoying his own description of MacIver’s manuscript.
‘The movie-going public is always interested in such stories,’ explained Breslow. ‘A little gang of rear-echelon soldiers stealing everything they could lay their hands on.’ His eyes were still on Stein and he smiled again. ‘Crooks in uniform: it’s an amusing formula.’
Stein’s hands went out with a speed that was surprising in such an overweight physique. His huge fingers and thumb grasped Breslow’s shirt collar with enough force to rip the button loose. He shook Breslow very gently to mark his words. ‘Don’t ever act disrespectful to me or to MacIver or any of our friends, Breslow. We don’t let strangers discuss what we did back in 1945. We left a lot of good buddies out there in the sand and the shit and the offal. I buried my kid brother on the battlefield. We stumbled on a little good fortune … that’s the way it goes. The spoils of war … we were entitled. You just remember that from now on.’ He released his grip and let Breslow straighten up and adjust his collar and tie.
‘I’m sorry to have offended you,’ said Breslow, with no trace of regret. ‘I understood you to say that you were
one of Mr MacIver’s comrades.’
Stein realized that he had been deliberately provoked into revealing more than he’d intended. ‘The spoils of war,’ said Stein. ‘That’s what it was.’
‘No offence intended,’ said Breslow, with a humourless smile. ‘You can call it anything you want; it’s quite all right with me.’
Disarrayed by his exertions, Stein hitched up his trousers and tucked in his shirt with a practised gesture. ‘Were you in the war, Mr Breslow?’
‘I was too young,’ said Breslow regretfully. ‘I spent the war years in Canada working for my father.’
‘Breslow,’ said Stein. ‘That name comes from Breslau, the German town, right? Were your folks German?’
‘What do I know about towns in Germany!’ said Breslow in a sudden burst of irritation. ‘I am a US citizen. I live here in California. I pay my taxes and stand at attention when they play the national anthem … What do I have to do? Change my name to Washington
‘That’s a good joke,’ said Stein, as if admiring an expensive watch. He took the Coca-Cola can and shook the last few drops into his glass before draining it.
‘You’ll get your money, Mr Stein,’ said Breslow. ‘Providing of course that you furnish the necessary agreement signed by Mr MacIver. We’ll not wait for probate if that’s what’s worrying you.’ Breslow sipped a little of his cognac. ‘There is a lot of money available to buy the documents Mr MacIver spoke of.’
‘Secret documents … about Hitler. Surely you’ve heard of them.’
‘I might have heard rumours,’ admitted Stein.
‘A great deal of money,’ said Breslow.
‘And the job for my son?’
Breslow looked again at the biographical résumé that Stein had put on his desk. ‘Well, he has no experience of movie making, and of course no labour-union membership.’ He pursed his lips. ‘Still, it might be possible to make a place for him. Especially if he’s inherited his father’s forcefulness.’
Breslow tucked the résumé under the leather corner of his large blotting pad. Then he took the Coke tin and the glasses, wiped away a few spilled drops and threw the paper napkins into the waste basket. It was a fussy gesture and Stein watched him with contempt. ‘I’ll get my secretary to fix an appointment for me to meet your son,’ said Breslow. He smiled and moved towards the door. Stein did not move. ‘Unless you have any questions …’ said Breslow to spur his departure.
‘One question, Mr Breslow,’ said Stein. ‘Why are you carrying a gun?’
‘Don’t kid around with me, Breslow. It’s in a holster in your belt. I saw it just now.’
‘Oh, the tiny pistol.’
‘Yeah, the tiny pistol. What’s a nice respectable movie producer like you doing with a Saturday night special in your waistband?’
‘Sometimes,’ said Breslow, ‘I have to carry a lot of cash.’
‘I knew there had to be a reason,’ said Stein. He reached for the broad-brimmed, floppy hat and plonked it on his head.
Max Breslow watched the street through the slatted blinds. He saw Charles Stein go to the Buick Riviera with the vinyl top which he’d left in the empty dirt lot behind the liquor store, and waited until he saw the car bump its way over the pavement edge and join the east-bound traffic. Only then did Breslow unlock and go through a door into the adjoining room.
It was as bleak and impersonal as its neighbour: plastic woven to look like carpet, plastic coloured to look like metal, and plastic veneered with wafers of richly coloured woods.
Sitting at a side table, in front of a small sophisticated cassette recorder and a pair of discarded headphones, a broad-shouldered man was waiting patiently. Willi Kleiber had close-cropped hair and a blunt moustache of the sort that British army officers used to favour, but no one would have mistaken Willi Kleiber for such. He had the wide head and high cheekbones that are so often the characteristics of Germanic people from the far side of the River Vistula. His nose was large, like the cutting edge of a broken hatchet, and his body was heavy and muscular. He had taken off his khaki golfing jacket and loosened his tie. His legs were stretched out so that his shiny, black high boots could be seen below his trousers.
‘What do you think, Willi?’ Max Breslow asked him.
Willi Kleiber pulled a face. ‘You did all right, Max,’ he said grudgingly.
‘What will happen next?’
Kleiber held the headphones together and wound the wires round them carefully as he considered his reply. ‘We’ve got rid of Lustig. You’ve let Stein know we can pay a lot of money for the documents, and soon he will discover that he’s lost a great deal of money. Then he will come back to us.’
‘How did you get Stein’s money?’
‘Not me; the Trust. When you have the active assistance of some of the most successful bankers in Germany, such swindles are easy to arrange.’
‘What did you mean … We’ve got rid of Lustig? You said you’d given him money for a vacation in Europe.’
Kleiber grinned. ‘You leave that side of things to me, Max. Don’t give Bernard Lustig another thought; the less you know about him, the better.’ He zipped up the front of his jacket to make a sudden noise.
‘I wish I’d never got into this,’ said Breslow. He could not muster the enthusiasm and energy that Kleiber brought to these crazy adventures, and wished he’d been able to stay out of this madness. Listening to Kleiber talking of such antics over coffee and cognac was amusing; but now he was involved, and he was frightened.
‘The Trust needed you,’ said Kleiber.
Breslow looked at him and nodded. Kleiber was simplistic, if not to say simple. Orders were orders and obeying them was an honoured role. Breslow had been the same when he was a young man. All that wonderful idealism, and the sense of purpose that is known only to the young, all squandered to the whims of Hitler and his fellow gangsters. What a tragic waste.